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New Yorks central nervous system is growing; here's what it can do

In the not-so-distant future, on Roosevelt Island, you will pull into a parking spot and a small, white, square lump will be burrowed in the asphalt underneath.
The lump, an ultra-low power sensor, will communicate with other white lumps under parked cars all over the island, telling each other when you pulled in, how long you've been parked and when you rumble away.

Last month, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corp. announced plans to place these sensors underneath the 30 new parking spots next to Roosevelt Island's subway and tramway. The organization hopes the new "smart" parking spaces, created by a company called Streetline, will help ease double-parking snarls and short-meter-time frustrations. By embedding sensors, Roosevelt Island will have the ability to assess its parking situation and make changes, like adding more parking spaces in certain areas or boosting fares in particularly congested areas.

Zia Yusuf, C.E.O. of Streetline, Inc. billed the development this way: "By beginning the process of deploying Streetline's sensors, Roosevelt Island is setting the stage for a new world of efficiency and improved services for its citizens."

Now imagine the sensors canvassed citywide.

You'd be able to download Streeline's application and fire it up as you drive to a restaurant or shop you plan to visit. The sensors would beam real-time data to your phone, letting you know where there are spaces open within a few blocks of your destination. They would tell you how much longer that giant Hummer taking up two spaces right in front of your favorite coffee shop has left on the meter so you can swoop in when he's out. Once you've found your spot, you could make sure the sensors text you and let you know when you should come out and feed the meter.

In municipal terms, a program like this would allow the city to track parking demand, the drag certain destinations create on parking densities, and create an automated system for ticketing cars when they've outrun the meter, all while eliminating the burden of paying metermaids to stalk the sidewalks. The network of data would also allow the city to set meter rates on parking demand; this would mean more money for the city (higher rates in higher-demand spots), and encouraging shorter stops in high-demand areas (less dawdling on Bleecker at Sixth Avenue.)

The groundwork is already laid for these scenarios

streetline sensors.jpgThe city is thoroughly laced with technology that transforms the physical activity of the city into data, from crowd-sourced information collected when people scan barcodes with smartphones to these white lumps on Roosevelt Island to systems as old fashioned as red-light cameras that take photos, identify license plates and send out tickets to red-light runners. Sensors in weather towers record temperature, air pressure and cloud coverage so eventually we will know whether to take an umbrella to workor whether our plane will land on time. Traffic cameras tell us which bridges are snarled with traffic so we know whether to re-route our daily commute. Private properties with videocameras have already created a theoretical real-time movie of practically every nook and cranny of the city (not always uncontroversially) and Google has created a system that allows you to cruise the streets of New York via 3D photographs (less controversially, here).

Call it the rise of the machines: a potential boomtime for sensors. They quietly collect data which tell us stories about how the city works, and, if the information is used right, they can New Yorkers' lives easier and more efficient.

The demand for more of this sort of technology embedded in physical cities to automatically relay information to the agencies that govern its most basic bodily functions, is on a steady rise.

Gunshot sensors, for example, are already embedded in more than 30 U.S. cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. The tiny acoustic sensors attached to rooftops and telephone poles can detect when a gun is fired, geo-target the location, and then dispatch police to a street corner.

Network this kind of sensor data with security cameras and officers can be sent out to streets where drug dealers are loitering and emergency vehicles can be dispatched to traffic accidents, without a 911 call.

Increasingly, the city is looking at projects that face the public: The traffic sensors, the little white square lumps that could one day permanently replace Rita Metermaid, are just among the earliest tests.

The city has also put a scannable "QR" code on its garbage trucks, allowing citizens with Iphones or Androids to point it at the sticker, which fires up a website and plays a video explaining where the garbage is headed.

Todd Asher, first deputy commissioner of the Mayors Office of Media and Entertainment, said that scaling these projects to meet real demand from New Yorkersand teaching them how to use these systems themselvesis the major challenge for the city in developing these sorts of programs.

In July, the city plastered posters at bus stops demonstrating how commuters could use their handheld devices to scan a QR code, those crazy-looking new barcodes, to watch a video about recycling while waiting for the bus. They've only had about 2,000 takers so far. Still, Asher said, the city plans to expand these programs, thinking that if they keep building, people will start coming.

There has been an impatience, theres a really strong desire for more, Asher said. Now that weve been given kind of a taste, theres a demand to get a lot as possible as quickly as possible.

The city's digital nervous system

The city's digital nervous system, as it exist now, is a patchwork of public and private endeavors, with corporate and government applications that are discrete. There's one program in the Department of Transportation, another program organized by the guys at Foursquare. The real excitement, for people working in this sector, is the "appification" of the city: What if the city could fuse a bunch of those different data streams, it could create an urban environment keenly aware of itself as an organism. The city as a body is an old metaphor; a city with a real, functioning nervous system would put truth to the metaphor.

In more recent years as sensor technology has improved, the focus has broadened from public safety and emergency response to include subtler changes in environment.

The National Bicycle and Pedestrian Documentation Project oversaw a census in New York City this September and combined the power of both humans and sensors.

Michael Jones, a planner and principal with the Portland, Ore.-based Alta Planning and Design, told USA Today that trained volunteers record the direction of each passing biker and pedestrian for two hours each on a weekday and weekend day in multiple locations, and then use around-the-clock tallies from automated devices placed on other nearby trails and roads to account for seasonal and daily weather variations. He says it's easy to find volunteers to monitor riders on sunny days, but hard to find people willing to stand in the rain at night, even though cyclists are still out.

It's a great relief to have robots out there counting rain or shine, Patton said in an interview.

Nick Bilton, an adjunct professor at New York University and the lead blogger of the New York Times technology blog, organizes a technology class that revolves around telling stories with sensors, data and humans.

Students tucked sensors into elevator shafts to explore NYU foot-traffic patterns. They discovered when students were squished together and when they deserted the building. In an interview, Bilton said one of the experiments he wanted to conduct was putting sensors all over Washington Square Park that would measure light variations; vibrations as students walk by in one direction or another. Then they would be able to find out when Washington Square Park is the most crowded, or empty.

They could also cross-reference the data with city police reports on arrests crimes in the area to see if that tells them anything about the stories in their neighborhood.

Nervous system for humanity

At an october lecture in Cambridge, M.I.T.'s director of the Human Dynamics Laboratory, Sandy Pentland, explained the notion of creating a nervous system for humanity.

You all carry wireless devices called cellphones, what that does is that constructs a network of sensors, and thats actually the important bit, is that theyre sensors, that know where they are, what are the local conditions," he said. "You can harvest this information to be able to tell things about what are going on in the buildings and around the buildings, in the cities and across the country, in a way that is very surprising and a way that supports intervention to get done what youd like to do.

Pentland is a pioneer in wearable computers, health systems, smart environments. He has been hired by major corporations, like Bank of America, to study their workers and how they work.

For example, Pentland can track face-to-face meetings taking place in an organization, and troubleshoot areas of low-productivity. At the lecture, he described changing the time for coffee breaks in a Bank of America call center, and saving that business $15 million. It promoted a lot more face to face communication in the right places, he said.

Pentland said real estate developers could look at transportation patterns, for instance, and build stores in places convenient to particular demographic. He detailed how tribes of peoplefrom Wall Streeters to Williamsburg artists to window-washersmove about in cities, and can make astonishingly accurate predictions about where and when these groups go to eat and find the things they buy.

This is what people tried to do with zip codes, Pentland said. They tried to explain the patterns of people's lives based on where they lived.

And in a city like New York, zip codes tell such a small part of the story. A typical city resident uses several neighborhoods and several modes of transportation throughout the day, the week, the year. Zip codes lose track of you the minute you leave the neighborhood you call home. Sensors, on the other hand, can track you whereever you go.

The sometimes scary prospect of a physical environment monitoring its inhabitants has its less creepy counterpart in the possibilities for citizens to monitor their environments in return.

A French company called Sensaris has unleashed wearable Senspods on Paris, San Francisco and Chicago. The tiny sensors are attached to bags, belts, or wrists straps, and detect levels of air quality, noise, and humidity as you move through a building, neighborhood or city. As it quietly geo-locates and time stamps data, the information is automatically uploaded via Bluetooth and users can watch the data change with an iPhone application. The data from multiple people can be spun into maps that will display, in real-time, where the most polluted or noisiest areas are in a city or building are at one time.

Also, many of us offer observations of the world around us in status updates on social networks. Government agencies and non-profit startups are trying to find ways to rally information about colds and food poisoning outbreaks. When users say I have a cold on geolocated Twitter or Facebook postings, public health departments are hoping to gather that information and understand where the outbreaks are happening, and perhaps where they originated from.

This will ruffle the "You Are Not a Gadget" pish-poshers, but people can be "sensors" themselves. As Steven Johnson recently explained in Wired, programs like 311 and start-ups like SeeClickFix prove how humans, and the information they provide, can be gathered to change the way a city works.

Of course, more people are actually going to have to use location-based applications to make this kind of information useful. According to a Forrester Research study cited in the New York Times, location-based apps and websites gather all kinds of excitement and start-up financing, but just 4 percent of Americans have tried the services, and only 1 percent use them weekly.

Were working with 8 and a half million people and there are all kinds of different backgrounds and lifestyles that people have, Asher, the mayors deputy commissioner, said. "Some people dont have a smartphone or a computer. Television or radio or the libraries are going to be a better touchpoint for them.

Certainly, for most people, libraries will seem like much safer harborers of information, rather than these tiny, hidden devices that collect data all around us.

Better parking

Pentland admits that much of this scary "rise of the machines" business will still make "people feel like 1984," he said in his lecture.

While most citizens probably don't mind the idea of pole-mounted devices collecting data on rainfall or air pollution, they are likely to be less receptive to the notion of cameras or traffic sensors that follow their movements throughout a city. The ownership of everyones data needs to be in the hands of the individual and not just the government or marketers, Pentland explained.

But there are more questions on how the information gets shared: Does it stay in the neighborhood? Can citizens chose who gets to see it? Can they block it from a chosen pool of people? The government? Advertisers?

The fact that these questions remain so abstract may just be a matter of public understanding.

We have already watched as, collectively, so many have traded the guards they've put up around their private lives for the benefits to be obtained by them from contributing to a common fund of data.

And when people discover the possibilities for New York as a digitally connected central nervous system, what will they say? Or more importantly, what will they do?

Maybe, at least, they'll find better parking spaces.
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